(This essay considers the graphic novel and film version of 300 to be one and the same since the latter is a near frame-by-frame reproduction of the former.)
To those who know little or nothing about ancient Greek society (read: pretty much everyone), Frank Miller’s 300 seems like a senseless, gory hack-fest, a tale tailored to nerdy boys who in real life make up about 3% of the body mass of the Spartan heroes they are admiring; and so it is. But to those of us who have spent some time getting to know other Greeks besides King Leonidas and his 300 men, the story — while clearly exaggerated, and not without reason — is astonishingly accurate in terms of the culture. (Were there really so many Persian arrows in the sky that the sun was blotted out? Probably not, though that notion does come down to us from Herodotus, VII.226.) There is, for instance, the accuracy of the Persian messenger’s fearful warning that to threaten a messenger is “blasphemy,” which was something the Greeks believed whole-heartedly. Also take note of how the Spartan guards greet the Persian messenger indifferently, but decide to let him in when they realize they could garner a reputation as being bad hosts: being a good host — even to your ostensible enemies — was a sacred responsibility, not just something one did to play nice. Mistreat your guests, the Greeks believed, and you’d find yourself with one of Zeus’ lightning bolts in your face. Well the Spartans, it seems, ultimately prefer killing Persians to honoring the gods, so they push the messengers down into a bottomless chasm. (Of course! Don’t you have a bottomless chasm in your front yard?) Frankly, I don’t think many of these Spartans would be fazed by Zeus’ lightning bolts.
But the most accurate cultural detail in 300 is the hypermasculine cockiness espoused by the various Spartans. The Greeks –particularly the pre-Alexandrian Greeks, those who had not yet been “weakened” by Persian influence — held in high regard the notion of kleos, which essentially translates to “stuff.” This holy stuff could be something material, like riches, or something intangible, like glory. To be a hypermasculine Spartan soldier meant to want kleos, lots and lots of kleos. Since these Spartans are threatened with utter extermination at the hands of the Persians, they are not too concerned with riches; thus, the only kleos worth earning in battle against Xerxes’ “thousand nations” is glory. If Sparta is going down, the Spartan soldiers might as well go down in battle fighting like wild wolves — well, wild wolves capable of maneuvering into a phalanx formation, anyway. But this explains the Spartans’ outrageous, seemingly improbable cockiness: when you are looking forward to being killed in battle, the enemy can do little to shatter your self-esteem. Thus, we have this lovely exchange between Leonidas and Xerxes:
Xerxes: Leonidas. Let us reason together. It would be a regrettable waste — it would be nothing short of madness — were you and your valiant troops to perish, all because of a simple, avoidable misunderstanding.
Leonidas: Don’t lose sleeping worrying over us. We’re having the time of our lives.
Xerxes: Brave words. Spartan words. Yours is a fascinating tribe. There is much our cultures could share.
Leonidas: We’ve been sharing out culture with you all morning.
You don’t talk like that to a gilded eight-foot-tall demigod without a certain sense that your death at his hands with bring you great glory — albeit in Hades. Leonidas is so sure of his impending glory that, when Xerxes threatens that he will wipe the memory of Sparta from the history books so no one will remember them, the Spartan king simply replies, “They’ll know.”
Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, complains that the characters “talk like professional wrestlers plugging their next feud.” Well, yeah. Where do you think the professional wrestlers gleaned their plugging skills from? This plugging, you see, is a hypermasculine tradition that extends even before the Battle of Thermopylae. Thus, Ebert fails to see that this — again, exaggerated at times to the extreme, and with good reason — is wholly fitting.
Thus, if you want to act like a hypermasculine ancient Greek, you need only fight an enemy and convince them you’re anxiously waiting to be killed so that you can reap loads of kleos. And also yell and promote your viciousness on the battlefield. A lot. Miller’s Spartans are a far cry from those in Rudolph Maté’s 1962 The 300 Spartans, but I sincerely believe these 300 are more faithful to the authentic Spartan spirit by leaps and bounds.
[A quick note on 300‘s exaggerations: They can be a little extreme at times — where does that sea of Persians end, anyway? — but that’s the point. For Leonidas and his 300 men, the currently-estimated 70,000 – 300,000-man Persian army might as well have been 3,000,000. (Indeed, Herodotus, being the resident Michael Bay/incredulous storyteller of his day, writes that the Persian forces numbered over 2.6 million, not including servants.) These exaggerations put us into the mindset of the Spartans — they give us an idea of how Leonidas and his men might have perceived the situation. The numbers didn’t matter, of course, for the Spartans — being hypermasculine ancient Greeks — were only too happy to die defending their country. Thus, in this narrative, bring on the exaggerations! Show us armies the size of New Jersey! Show us elephants the size of mack trucks! Show us deformed giants with muscles the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ego! It is not, I assure you, simple comic-book silliness, but rather a clever way to draw us psychologically into the characters. In this one instance, I guess, Herodotus actually comes through! Good work, old boy — it only took you 2,400 years.]